A small Buddhist Hell Garden near Sukhotai
It’s still one of a few insider-tip places to visit in Thailand. Even my tuk-tuk driver had to ask for directions. At the entrance, I meet the monk and he instantly takes me under his wings. He speaks little English and I even less Thai. I fear I insulted all his family by the time we arrive in the atrium - a cool place out of the burning Thai sun.
Since I am a tad taller than he - yes, that happens once in a decade - he invites me to sit down in one of those tiny Thai chairs more suitable for small children. A young helper brings tea and biscuits, which the monk serves with elegance and in tiny earthenware cups. We smile a lot and gesticulate even more but manage a lively conversation.
He tells me his father's story. Inspired by a dream, Phra Sumroeng began creating his version of a Buddhist Hell Garden in 1976. He started by renovating a tumbledown monastery, recycled what ever he could find, from bottles to weather-beaten wood and discarded building materials. He planted teak trees to stop the erosion - an enormous undertaking for one man alone. The result is a little gem of wonder and folk art.
Phra Sumroeng died at the early age of 67, but not before he had built his own tomb on the premise of Wat Thawet. He left his life's work to his son - a tremendous responsibility that he takes very serious. He tells me that he didn't inherit his father's vision nor artistic ability and sees himself merely as the one responsible to conserve his father's work of art. There is always something to repair, to repaint or rebuild at Wat Thawet. He gets help from locals, he tells me with a smile, because for them, work at a monastery is a form of merit making. Sometimes students and tourists come and stay for a while. It's challenging, he says, to get enough paint or building material to keep everything in shape.
Although there is not any mention of a donation and he doesn't charge an entry fee - gifts of money or material are welcome. He says, he is only a simple monk and not an abbot like his father was. Therefore, he's not financially supported by his order and relies on the goodwill of others.
I wander off through Phra's dream inspired creation, innocently called Buddhist Learning Garden. Life sized statues illustrate Buddha's life and the story of Ramayana. I learn that every different posture of a Buddha - standing, laying, sitting - has its own meaning.
All in all there must be over 100 life sized statues of people and animals lovingly painted and carefully placed. The lovely pagodas are intricately embellished with flowers, snakes, and all kind of flimsy decorations in brilliant colours with lots of gold like a somewhat overly decorated birthday cake. It's a lovely sculpture garden to kick back, away from the tourist crowd. Suddenly and without forewarning, I step into the middle of hell. 20 figures depict the karmic punishment of afterlife, not made for the faint. Naked men and women sit in front of the Death King and have their deeds checked, awaiting their adequate punishment. Here as elsewhere, women receive a harder punishment for abortion or adultery than men and a wife is punished for killing her husband, but not visa versa.
Punishment varies in harshness according to the sins committed. I see firsthand what will happen to selfish people and sinners. Gluttony, hatred, greed and anger are severely scolded, as are liars and thieves as well as the happy-go-lucky sort of people. Burning liquids are force fed to alcoholics and burn their innards that spill out of their bellies. Humans who don't respect the environment are turned into animals.
Not unlike the 10 commandments for Christians and Muslims - Buddhists have precepts, depending on the rank - laypeople five (other sources say six), novice monks ten and adult monks 227. I understand there are 136 pits, or hells, of different states of punishment - the deepest pit is reserved for the once who commit the harshest sins.
Unlike Christians though, where "the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever," Buddhist Hell is not a place of permanence and there is a chance - after severe suffering for a long time - to be reincarnated into a better life.
Many medieval European artists were inspired by hellish life and punishment. Just think of the Seven Deadly Sins by Hieronymus Bosch, Dante's The Divine Comedy or Herrad von Landsberg's "Hortus Deliciarum"
Compared to other Buddhist Hell Gardens, Wat Thawet, one of the oldest, seems to be a less chilling place than, for example, Wat Wang Saen Suk, just a bit south of Bangkok or the Tapan Cave in Phang Nga Town, where the motto seems to be "the more sadistic the better." Horrible scenes are depicted with unimaginable disturbing arenas of cruelty and torture, spilling blood everywhere.
Buddhist Hell Gardens are quite popular by native families and are visited like scary theme parks elsewhere. Learning gardens are weekend destinations used as a pedagogical tool to teach children strict morality by showing them what happens if you live a life in sin and accumulate too much bad karma.